Today’s Senate majority in Olympia bears a greater resemblance to the elevated partisanship of Washington, D.C., than the history of bipartisan cooperation symbolized by the widely-respected service of Republican Gov. Dan Evans.
FOR the last five years, an experiment in representative democracy has been playing out in our state capital.
In 2012, three Democrats joined 22 Republicans to give Republicans control of the state Senate in Olympia. With Democrats in charge in the House of Representatives, our state entered divided government for the first time in a decade.
Many lauded the development as a chance for a new era of bipartisan cooperation, fiscal discipline and policy moderation. Indeed, in a Dec. 15, 2012, Op-Ed in these pages [“State Senate’s new Majority Coalition Caucus will govern across party lines”], Sens. Rodney Tom and Mark Schoesler promised to “set aside their political affiliations and govern cooperatively.”
In a recent Op-Ed in these pages, one of the architects of that effort, Tom, made the case that Republican control of the state Senate and their split-government experiment was an overwhelming policy and political success [“Washington state is better served by a split government,” July 30, Opinion].
The facts do not support that conclusion. If anything, today’s Senate majority in Olympia bears a greater resemblance to the elevated partisanship of Washington, D.C., than the history of bipartisan cooperation symbolized by the widely-respected service of Republican Gov. Dan Evans.
Like the GOP majorities in the U.S. Congress, Senate Republicans in Olympia have twice passed partisan state budgets with virtually no Democratic participation and used the fear of a government shutdown as leverage to push their agenda.
Most recently, they refused to bring up the capital investment budget for a vote — a $4 billion budget passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the House — because of an unrelated dispute over rural water wells. Tying those two issues together has caused billions in construction projects to grind to a halt in every corner of the state, frustrating efforts to reduce class sizes in public schools; maintain parks; complete museums and university buildings; construct affordable housing; and more.
The first action of a Democratic-led Senate next session, should that come to pass, would be to work collaboratively with the House to pass the previously agreed on capital budget.
Beyond the budgets, the Senate Republicans have blocked widely supported policies that affect our state’s quality of life. As the ranking members of two key committees, we have seen this firsthand outside on issues that never reach the headlines.
The Republican majority in the Senate Law & Justice Committee has blocked hearings and votes on bills to reduce gun violence with bipartisan support, such as one requiring safe storage and another regulating assault weapons. They refused to grant a hearing on a bill allowing grandparents and other relatives to petition a court to allow them to visit a child — even though 40 members of the Senate co-sponsored the bill. They refused to grant a public hearing on a bill to abolish the death penalty, even though a clear bipartisan majority supported the legislation.
The Republican majority in the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee has blocked hearings and votes on bills to address climate change, improve salmon restoration plans, strengthen Puget Sound cleanup, update funding of oil-spill cleanup and more.
If we were chairing the committees, we would not only give hearings to those bills, but we would work closely with our House counterparts — Rep. Laurie Jinkins and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon — to get the legislation to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.
Instead, in committee after committee, the Senate majority promise made in that 2012 Op-Ed to “cooperate and collaborate like never before” has evaporated.
And although the Legislature has not had a perfect record of public transparency and openness in the legislative process, Senate Republicans hit a new low this year. In an unprecedented and widely-criticized change, the public and even most lawmakers had less than 24 hours to review the contents of the $43 billion Republican operating budget before it was scheduled for a vote. Jamming the budget through prevents access to independent analysis and public perspective and does a disservice to the integrity of government itself.
The firm move to the right by the Senate majority in Olympia mirrors the national party tactics on health care, environmental protection and the budget. Lawmakers from both parties are constantly trying to explain to the public why we can’t deliver essential policy and complete our work on time. Far too many are losing faith in our democratic institutions at a time when they are needed the most.
By almost every measure, the political hypothesis that divided government in Olympia would unleash compromise, moderation and predictability to Olympia has been shown to be false.
We need a Legislature that truly works, effectively and on time, to meet the needs and solve the problems of all Washingtonians.